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RESPONSE TO TERROR | A CHANGED AMERICA

Big Brother Finds Ally in Once-Wary High Tech

ABOUT THIS SERIES: This is the sixth in an occasional series exploring the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on various

January 19, 2002|DAVID STREITFELD and CHARLES PILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FRESNO — Travelers at the airport here, on their way to Palm Springs or Las Vegas, are encountering something new just beyond the security checkpoint. It looks like a tube of King Kong's lipstick: six feet of brushed aluminum.

As the traveler approaches the device, a loudspeaker tells him to stop and "look forward." A camera snaps a series of photographs, which are instantly compared with pictures of known terrorists in a computer database. If there's a match, a siren sounds.

Terrorists in Fresno? As government officials have said, they could be anywhere. Which means they must be sought out everywhere. Airports around the country are preparing to install the facial-screening system being tested at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

The facial scans are part of a far-reaching shift in the nature and purpose of American high technology, a change hastened by the Sept. 11 attacks.

For two decades, high tech moved inexorably toward greater convenience and personal empowerment. Hand-held organizers, satellite phones and other digital devices embodied this ideal. They made it possible to get stock updates by cell phone and to shop for groceries via Palm Pilot. The trend was toward a decentralized system of ever-smaller, cheaper and more powerful gadgets.

These days, fear of terror is shifting the emphasis from wired convenience to physical security, from decentralized technology meant to make life easier to centralized surveillance meant to make America safer.

Across the tech world, money and creative energy are flowing to emerging technologies of vigilance, ranging from disposable surveillance cameras to systems that read brain waves for signs of malevolent intent.

Increasingly, the trend is to use technology to search and identify, to mark boundaries and deny access. At airports and office buildings, in supermarkets and stadiums, on computer networks and city streets, it will observe and control--for our own safety.

The elements of this new order go beyond software and servers. Anti-terrorist legislation enacted by Congress after Sept. 11 expands the FBI's authority to eavesdrop and search e-mail and phone records. In California, Gov. Gray Davis is seeking similar powers.

The new technologies will make such searches faster and more extensive. They also will reduce the typical citizen's zone of privacy and clash with deep-rooted American values.

"Security and privacy are always in a balance, but since the attacks the equation has changed," said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and an expert on information privacy.

As in other national crises, from the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor, political, legal and technological change is outpacing discussion of its consequences.

"You don't want to have a committee meeting when your house is on fire," Zittrain said.

In the forefront of this shift are two of the most successful and influential chief executives in Silicon Valley: Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp., the second-largest software company, and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems Inc., a maker of powerful computers that operate networks.

"Absolute anonymity breeds absolute irresponsibility," McNealy declared in October. "If you get on a plane, I want to know who you are. If you rent a crop-duster, I want to know who you are."

Both men are calling for a high-tech national identification card. Oracel and Sun could profit from the development of such an ID, which would be electronically linked to government databases. Still, the executives' stance is remarkable coming from an industry that traditionally has viewed government oversight with disdain.

Their view also reflects changing public opinion. Polls show that Americans, who used to associate a national identity card with totalitarianism, now strongly favor the idea.

"We as a people are willing to trade a little less privacy for a little more security," said Stewart Baker, former general counsel to the National Security Agency, the largest U.S. spy agency. "If using more intrusive technology is the only way to prevent horrible crimes, chances are that we'll decide to use the technology, then adjust our sense of what is private and what is not."

Scanning the Faces in the Crowd

The Sept. 11 attacks may have lent impetus to the creation of a national identity state, but the groundwork was laid long ago. Video surveillance is so common as to have faded into the fabric of everyday life.

More than 2 million cameras in this country continuously scan street corners and hotel lobbies, grocery stores and schools, subway trains and sports stadiums. Every day, they capture billions of images.

Those images are used mainly to identify criminals after the fact. The next generation of watching technologies is designed to help police intervene in real time.

An embryonic version of this idea is being tested by the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter-rail system.

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